Houston

Houston

Various Venues

Houston’s University of St. Thomas is a small college, but it has a big reputation for putting on fine art exhibitions. And the winter exhibition of Clcladic and Haniwa Sculpture has proven to be no exception. The more than fifty selections from these Pre-Greek and Early Japanese cultures are well chosen and impressively displayed, (although the Cycladic tends to overbalance the Haniwa in a nearly four to one quantity ratio).

The Cycladic sculptures are dominantly idol figures excavated from Aegean Island tombs of the 3rd millennium B.C. to 1100 B.C.—the Bronze Age. They are solid marble, almost completely contained, symmetrical and rigid in form, as is typical of most archaic arts. Faces are usually featureless with the exception of a prominent schematized nose; necks are elongated; arms are crossed against the torso; and legs are frontal, close together, but with a bend at the knees. Sex is indicated subtly. (There is also a violin-shaped type found primarily in the period from 2500 to 2300 B.C.) There is evidence that many were painted, although no extant traces of paint were apparent to the viewer of this exhibit. That which makes these figures of greater esthetic importance than the similarly stylized figurines of other Eastern Mediterranean cultures is their extreme elegance and refinement, their stark essentiality, and their delicate plasticity, which form a direct link with the works of such 20th-century sculptors as Brancusi or Arp.

The Haniwa sculptures, terra-cotta figures of the Japanese Kofun period of the 2nd to 6th centuries A.D., create a strong contrast against the Cycladic. Although they too were found in tombs and are primitive in interpretation, few additional relationships exist. The Haniwas are hollow, cylindrically based humans, animals, and inanimate objects as well, thought to have been modeled by means of stacking and adhering a series of rings, thus producing uneven surfaces. Details were produced by gouging and filleting. The bases were evidently either pushed into the ground or filled with dirt and used life weights. In addition. to these technical differences between the Cycladic and Haniwa, they are poles apart conceptually. As opposed to the serene Cycladic figures, the Haniwa are active, often asymmetrically posed, more earthy images, undoubtedly a direct outgrowth of their early nature-worship form of Shintoism. Haniwa vitality and imagination are key drawing points for us today.

Another small public gallery which has a reputation for presenting noteworthy exhibits is Houston’s Contemporary Arts Museum. But this month’s “Light and Motion” show is far below the usual standard both in contents and installation. Ineffectually arranged are a hodge-podge of items ranging from historical lamps to light machines to glass containers and curtains; and from a tinfoil geodesic structure to a convex, round-mirror grouping on to two rather ordinary fountains. It is a shame that the exhibition organizers were not able to follow more closely the advice by Gyorgy Kepes in his essay for their catalog: “Creative light management must be disciplined and programmed by the sensitive eye.”

The Houston Museum of Fine Arts, like many museums this year, is showing Rodin. A monumental bronze, The Walking Man, a recent bequest to the museum, is the focal point around which thirty of his wash drawings are displayed. The Walking Man was initially undertaken as a study for St. John the Baptist Preaching of 1878. The original plaster, which still survives, was less than half life size. This version, which is over seven feet tall, was not enlarged until 1905 and not cast until 1906. The figure is headless and armless, but complete in imagery. It is a powerful example of the artist’s work, manifesting both mobile and emotional potency.

The surrounding drawings, in line and single-toned transparent washes, depict various figures in action, frequently dancers. These figures are interpreted in a kind of generalized shorthand, apparently so as to give maximum emphasis to gesture and movement, and to the pattern and rhythmic qualities of the positions.

Also on exhibit simultaneously at the museum are twenty-five sculptures from the Museum of Modern Art in New York. They date from the late 19th century to the very contemporary and include many noted works by famed artists.

Charlene Steen